Foolish Wives (1922) Erich von Stroheim
Flicker Alley, dual format edition Blu-ray and DVD
Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of Flicker Alley
This new 4K restoration of Foolish Wives reconstructs the original continuity by combining the surviving original film elements, meticulous image restoration, and recreation of the original stunning color effects, to offer audiences the closest look possible at the original version of the film.
Foolish Wives features a newly commissioned orchestral score composed and conducted by maestro Timothy Brock and performed by Real Filharmonia de Galicia and recorded in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia. (Flicker Alley press release)
Audiences standing in line in 1922 for Foolish Wives may not have known the name Erich von Stroheim, but they had likely heard and seen the advertisements touting the film as the “first million-dollar movie.” Such excitement over a million-dollar budget today seems quaint if not laughable. Today the final budget for Foolish Wives would be the equivalent of just over $18 million, a figure that would account for about 9% of an average Marvel movie or roughly 12 minutes of screen time.
But in 1922, a million-dollar movie was big news.
The film’s opening title card reveals that our story takes place six months after the signing of the armistice calling for a cease in hostilities between the defeated Germany and the Allies in World War I. That card not only gives the viewer an historical landmark, it also sets the stage for our protagonists. Like criminals getting itchy between heists, this trio of malefactors sits in a villa in Monte Carlo awaiting some wealthy person to fleece. Introduced to the audience as members of the Russian aristocracy, this threesome may appear aristocratic, but they’re little more than vulgar pretenders.
Oh, but they do pretend well…
(photo: Garden of Silence)
“Her Highness” Olga Petchnikoff (Maude George) would have made for an exceptional torturer during the medieval era. Olga expresses her contempt for the servant Maruschka (Dale Fuller) following a simple oversight for which the maid receives a prolonged pinch on the arm. Olga’s blonde tresses are eye-catching, yet they are best observed from a safe distance.
(photo: Garden of Silence)
“Princess” Vera Petchnikoff (Mae Busch) is more of a free spirit, yet convincingly displays the suffering boredom of the idle rich, awaiting the next exciting adventure.
But our eyes are constantly drawn to Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (Erich von Stroheim), constantly sporting a majestic white tunic offset with a dark crossed belt and medals. His polished boots, cigarette holder, and monocle convey not only that he’s in charge, but demands your complete and undivided attention.
And that’s the point: amaze, distract, and swindle.
The trio is running low on funds, desperately needing to find a rich chump they can take to the cleaners. As con artists go, these three look and act the part with a practiced air of believability, especially Karamzin. We wonder if he’s been playing this part for so long he’s conned himself into thinking the persona of a Russian count is genuine. All he needs is for one wealthy sucker to believe it as well.
Enter American diplomat Mr. Andrew Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife Helen (billed simply as “Miss DuPont”), who’ve just arrived in Monte Carlo. Soon Karamzin’s “divide and conquer” method kicks into high gear as Olga and Vera work on Mr. Hughes while Karamzin slowly and methodically woos Helen.
Mother Nature aids Karamzin in ways he never could have manipulated on his own. A sudden massive storm forces Karamzin and Helen to give up their leisurely walk and flee for shelter, with Karamzin rowing them in a small boat to an abandoned shack. Even more advantageous for Karamzin, Helen can spend significant time recuperating from a sprained ankle during their escape, thereby depending on him even more.
Although the criminal triumvirate desperately needs money, they’re content to play the long game, which involves an elaborate plan to invite Mr. Hughes to a casino and relieve him of his money. Yet the plan allows Hughes (and anyone else in the casino) to win counterfeit bills manufactured by Karamzin’s criminal connection Cesare Ventucci (Cesare Gravina).
Like all great crime pictures involving large-scale deception, Foolish Wives contains many moving parts and surprises which I will not reveal here. For a film nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Foolish Wives moves at a fairly brisk pace. Subplots are kept to a minimum and are significant not only to the story, but more importantly in helping develop the narcissistic character of Karamzin, who also has his eye on Ventucci’s mentally challenged daughter (Malvina Polo) as well as the maid Maruschka.
The film’s enormously extravagant and expensive sets, interiors, casino scenes, and particularly the spectacular fire sequence near the end of the film are all spectacular, yet the selling point here is Stroheim, especially in front of the camera. In Foolish Wives his Karamzin adopts a persona that is manufactured much like Stroheim himself, who created his own fictional history and remained consistent to it for practically his entire life. His claims of Austrian nobility and military honors were fabrications as are Karamzin’s boasts, yet both men display bold confidence and carry such gravitas that we believe them unquestioningly. Such actions overwhelm nearly everyone Karamzin meets. They take his every word as gospel.
It’s unclear how much Stroheim is playing Karamzin and how much he is simply playing himself, or his own version of himself. Karamzin is fascinating because Stroheim is fascinating. As a director Stroheim is tyrannical, controlling, adamant, and insistent. He scorned the $250,000 budget he’d been given, made impossible demands, and even butted heads with Universal’s general manager Irving Thalberg, who threatened to fire Stroheim if he couldn’t bring the film under financial control. Stroheim simply reminded Thalberg that he was not only the film’s director, but also its star, and much of his scenes had already been shot.
Stroheim’s self-destructive tendencies simply could not be reined in, at least not by the director himself. Cutting Foolish Wives down from Stroheim’s intended six-hour running time to 143 minutes was outrageous, but it was nothing compared with his next project Greed (1924), a work of brilliance, but carrying a running time of 10 hours, all of which, argued Stroheim, was absolutely essential. Stroheim never gave up easily.
The film itself is just part of the story, and thanks to the wonderful extras on the Flicker Alley Blu-ray/DVD combo, we have more of the tale, which includes “Filming Foolish Wives,” an excerpt from Pathe’s Screen Snapshots series with behind-the-scenes and on-set footage from the film, “The Waves and the Merry-Go-Round: On Location with Erich von Stroheim,” a documentary giving the historical and thematic aspects of the film and Stroheim’s work, presented by historian Brad Rosenstein, “Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood’s First Million-Dollar Picture,” on the making of the film, presented by Museum of Modern Art curator Dave Kehr, “Restoring Foolish Wives,” a deep dive into the research, reconstruction, and restoration of the film with restorer Robert Byrne, a source comparison demo, a restoration demo, photo galleries, and a souvenir booklet featuring a new essay by James Layton on the film’s restoration, excerpts from an examination of the film by author and critic David Thomson, an introduction to the newly commissioned score by Timothy Brock, as well as production stills and promotional materials.
Flicker Alley has done it again with a superb presentation containing plenty of extras. This is undoubtedly the best Foolish Wives has ever looked since its initial run, so do not pass up this opportunity to own this wonderful edition of the film.
Many thanks to Flicker Alley for graciously providing me a review copy of this release.